Puglia forms the heel of the boot of Italy. Here, the Italian peninsula divides, and as the appennines sweep round into Calabria where they end their journey into the sea, Puglia a relatively flat promontory, points towards Greece whose landscape it resembles. Puglia is a landscape of tension. Its dry land caught between plateau and plain, whose olive trees push upwards to the Mediterranean sun and downwards to the water which has seeped into the caverns below.
A bit of history
Once occupied by the ancient Greeks, in Roman times Puglia was on the crossroads of the Empire. Here the Via Appia arrived, or started at the port of Brindisi, carrying people arriving or departing on a ship to Greece or the middle East to or from the city of Rome. It was a land hard to farm, and full of danger. From the pirates who attacked its ports and villages, to the spiders endemic to the greek colony of Taras, whose bite it was said, could only be cured by performing a frenzied dance which pushed the venom from your body. This is a tradition which survives to this day, in the music and dance of the tarantella while the spider and others like it carry the name of tarantula.
The pirates might be gone, but the ports of Brindisi and Bari still carry goods and passengers along the traditional routes east and in the summer are on the backpacker trail to the Greek island of Corfu and the port of Patras. These ports, along with agriculture, mostly olives and grapes which love the terroir, support the region although the textile and leather goods industry is not unimportant. But Puglia also attracts large numbers of tourists who come to see, and maybe stay in, one of its unique constructions known as trulli.
The village of Alberobello is the capital village of trulli and its collection are on the list of world heritage sites at UNESCO. These small white and grey beehive houses are made from dry stone and look like large wine jars topped with a chess pawn. The walls supporting the dome and the finial on top are whitewashed, with the grey dry-stone roofs left exposed, often with a design painted on them in whitewash too. Rather like the cave houses in Matera in neighbouring Basilicata, these were once the poor dwellings of peasants but are now sought after and many have been turned into holiday rentals or hotels.
Like Greece, lamb is a very important staple of Puglian cuisine with stufato, a lamb stew common fare. Spezzatino di agnello alla pugliese is another common method of consuming it. Seafood is also common with taiedda a kind of risotto with potato and clams being a speciality of Brindisi. Stuffed vegetables, including artichokes and eggplants are also found the stuffing often involving minced lamb when it is in season.
Food and wine
The most famous dish from Puglia remains however, orecchiette. These small disks of pasta with the appearance of ‘little ears’, hence the name, are popular throughout Italy. They can be served with sauces made of various meat and vegetables. One very popular way to serve them is with cima di rapa, or broccoli rabe, a slightly bitter leaf vegetable that imparts a delicious bite to the sauce.
Puglian wine has recently started to make a stir. Primitivo, one of the native grapes, is believed to be the source of the Zinfandel grape and makes a similar full-bodied red. Other varieties include negroamaro and nero di troia which produced similarly fruity wines. White wine production is less important but is getting underway with the introduction of the chardonnay grape as well as renewed cultivation of local varietals.